BL&T No. 025: Practicing Vulnerability

Borrowed, Learned, & Thought (or BL&T) is a weekly newsletter sent on Mondays. In every edition, I share a borrowed idea (quote, excerpt), a lesson learned from the previous week, and a thought starter heading into the new week. Learn more and subscribe here.

Borrowed

"As I remind coaches all the time, the capacity to do a thing is not the same as the skill to do it. And both of these are different from the desire to do it."

From "Changing on the Job" by Jennifer Garvey Berger

Learned

What does it mean to be honest?

On the surface, honesty seems simple. For most of my life, I would have defined it as telling the truth.

I am grateful to have grown up in a home where honesty was a value. My parents taught us that honesty was the way, and there was nothing to be gained by sidestepping the truth. However, as I get older, I've learned that honesty is complex.

Unsaid Truths

Years ago, I faced a particularly tough conversation with an underperforming employee. I was comfortable sharing the feedback but struggled to find the words to say: If we do not see a sincere effort to improve, we will have to let you go. Why was this so hard?

Although I viewed myself as an honest person, I realized that I often left some truth unsaid. These unsaid truths were where I found safety. In this case, honesty would mean sharing the feedback and the importance of addressing it. The unsaid truth? Their job was on the line.

I wanted this person to succeed. I knew that letting them go wouldn't be positive for either of us. Unsaid truths protect us from short-term discomfort, but in the long-term, they hold us back. In the end, I told the employee the whole truth. They swiftly turned their performance around and continue to grow with us today.

Vulnerability

This experience was liberating for me. It taught me to embrace discomfort in service of a brighter future. It showed me that honesty is as much about telling the truth as having the courage to face it. Said differently, I believe that we must learn to be vulnerable to be wholly honest.

Vulnerability is a consistent theme in a book that the partners and I are currently reading called An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. The basis for the book is this: "In most organizations nearly everyone is doing a second job no one is paying them for--namely, covering their weaknesses, trying to look their best, and managing other people's impressions of them. There may be no greater waste of a company's resources. The ultimate cost: neither the organization nor its people are able to realize their full potential."

Going into the book, I felt good about the honesty I'd built within my team, but as I made my way through the text, I wasn't confident that everyone on my team was free of a second job.

Workshop

As a manager, this is not a change you can accomplish solely through inquiry. An inquiry might even have the adverse effect, fear. Eager to start a discussion, I organized a Creative Team workshop last week with the hope of creating space to practice vulnerability.

Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies Framework describes how people respond to expectations through unique profiles. It made a strong impression on me earlier this year and felt like the perfect anchor for this discussion.

I kept the agenda simple:

  1. Introduce the framework and workshop objective: "Our objective today is to explore how each of us responds to expectations, personally and professionally. The hope is that we not only learn about ourselves but also about each other, resulting in more thoughtful, effective collaboration." (5 min)
  2. Guess your Tendency (5 min)
  3. Find your Tendency via the quiz: did you get it right? (10 min)
  4. Group reflection. Think of a situation where your Tendency has played a role. Personally? Professionally? What did you learn about yourself through this exercise? (40 min)

While there were a few skeptics initially, I could feel a sense of relief and warmth emanating from Zoom by the end. I was so pleased I sent this corny message:

Our discussion transcended The Four Tendencies. Some reflected on past hurdles and the challenges they face today. Others learned something new about themselves. We all shared truths previously left unsaid.

"I want to be reliable. When people rely on me, I want to do more. I worry this will lead to burnout because I have trouble admitting when I'm overextended."
"I will do anything to achieve my version of quality. I think this can overwhelm others. It's hard to control and often leaves me feeling exhausted."
"I am trying to take up a new hobby right now but have a hard time making time for myself."

I went into the workshop feeling apprehensive. Now, the team is craving more! It may be a small step, but it's a step closer to bringing our whole selves to work and establishing vulnerability as a new norm.

Lesson? Vulnerability makes honesty whole. Imagine a kid trying to convince his friends not to climb to the top of the jungle gym. He says, “I don’t want to go. It’s no fun up there.” leaving out that he’s afraid of heights. His sister blurts it out for him. His world spins until a friend exclaims, "That's okay! I used to be scared, too." He smiles in relief. The friend shares her story as they walk to the swings.

Vulnerability Makes Honesty Whole by Lucas Ballasy

In our desire to be honest, we fear vulnerability leaving truths unsaid. Vulnerability is a skill. We must create the space for practice. In time, we will find that our vulnerability inspires vulnerability in others, strengthening our relationships and creating a clear pathway toward growth.

Thought Starter

What have I left unsaid?